by Beth Young
Riverhead’s Vail-Leavitt Music Hall will be the scene later this month for a series of eight bold experimental theatrical projects.
Debbie Slevin and Cindy Clifford, who two years ago staged a series of new works called “The Apron Strings Project” at the historic theater, are now gearing up for the first-ever East End Fringe Festival, a two-week long festival of new plays and poetry running from July 26 to Aug. 6.
The plays selected cover topics ranging from stardom and addiction to the idea of meritocracy to Alzheimer’s Disease to a comical side effect of the use of Viagra.
“It was a very interesting spread. Some were challenging, nothing was conventional, and they explore different topics, from health to religion to sexuality and addiction,” said Ms. Slevin in a mid-June interview with The Beacon.
Each playwright whose work was selected has been tasked with bringing their own director, cast and limited set to the theater.
“I call it guerrilla theater. We have a very short time to pull it all together and present it,” said Ms. Slevin. “In between the plays, the production team has half an hour to knock down the set. It’s very fast, very fun and not very serious.”
The organizers received nearly 100 submissions from playwrights from as far away as California and Virginia.
One of the first plays the judges read is called “Fifty Flat,” by playwright Brianna Singer, a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
“It’s a futuristic show about how people are assigned jobs in the future,” said Ms. Slevin, who said she was very impressed with the show from the get-go.
Ms. Singer found a director and cast who are rehearsing “Fifty Flat” at Hofstra University before bringing it to Riverhead for the festival.
“It’s a dystopian story that takes place in the United States 50 years in the future. Everyone has to take a standardized test and their score on the test determines their civil rights, where they’re allowed to live, what job they’re allowed to have,” said Ms. Singer. “The concept came from a wealth equality conversation we were having in our dorm.”
The characters find out later that the scores on the test are almost entirely random.
“It’s a commentary on how the idea of meritocracy in the U.S. is really flawed,” she added. “Merit doesn’t really decide success as much as luck does.”
Playwright Jim Kingston of Southampton began working on his comedy “Priapism” after taking a break from a heavy novel he was working on.
“Priapism” is the medical name for the side effect of erectile dysfunction drugs that causes sufferers to have erections that last far too long.
He first tried out a reading of the play with a writers group he belongs to at the Westhampton Free Library, and then worked on it in play development lab at Stony Brook Southampton’s Writers Conference last year.
“It turned out to be a real battle of the sexes, and it’s very tongue in cheek,” he said. “There’s no nudity, no foul language, but there’s a lot of innuendo.”
Mr. Kingston, who has written for film and television, said he was very happy when the Fringe Festival organizers didn’t ask him to tone down the play. That said, “Priapism” is the last show on the bill each night it is performed at the festival, and he recommends theatergoers be 16 years old or older.
“It has almost a Junior High mentality to it, like “Seinfeld” or “The Big Bang Theory,”” he said.
Mr. Kingston said he’s excited by the idea of putting up the show in the minimalist setting of the Fringe Festival.
“I was amazed the first time I saw “Our Town.” I thought ‘how can they do a whole play with just a chair?’” he said. “My set is folding chairs, tables and a lot of imagination.”
The two playwrights who wrote “Breakout” share a very interesting background. Susan Dingle and Maggie Bloomfield are both psychotherapists working on the East End. They’re both poets. They both had long histories in show business before embarking on their new careers, and they are both in recovery from substance abuse.
The show tells their intertwined stories of recovery and rebuilding their lives.
“It focuses on two things: our separate stories of recovery, and how we learned to use our voices to support our recovery,” said Ms. Bloomfield. “We’re speaking to women who are incarcerated on how to access their own voices as a tool in recovery.”
“Our dream is to do this show in the Riverhead Jail, but in the meantime, we’ll do it here,” said Ms. Dingle at a meeting of directors, producers and playwrights at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall on June 17.
“Breakout” is directed by Rosemary Cline and Andrew Botsford, two regulars on the Hampton Theatre Company stage. Its first performance was in a one-night, standing-room-only show at the Southampton Cultural Center last fall.
“It is just a gorgeous project to work on,” said Ms. Cline. “They’re so incredibly talented. Their voices are so different, even though both have the same background. Their stories converge in a really neat way.”
New York playwright Kathy Kafer’s “Leaving Evelyn” tells the story of a son whose stepfather and mother come to visit him in Westchester, and during the course of their visit, the stepfather reveals that he wants to leave his wife for her son to care for her, because she is showing early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Linda Selman will direct “Leaving Evelyn,” which she first read at the National Arts Club in 2014. This summer’s production at the Vail-Leavitt has a cast of equity actors from the city.
“There are no answers in this play, but it’s funny, sweet, poignant and serious,” she said.
Ms. Kafer and Ms. Selman’s first visit to Riverhead was on June 17, when they had a chance to size up the stage and talk about the technical details of their production with the staff of the Vail-Leavitt, which is partnering with the festival.
“It’s a cute little town,” said Ms. Kafer.
There’s a lot going on this summer to try to bring life to downtown Riverhead, including the “Alive on 25” summer Thursday evening street fair.
The Fringe Fest will host a special “TheatreExpress” segment of short plays as part of the “Alive on 25” festivities on July 27 at East End Arts’ Art Stage, with four separate performances from 5 to 8:45 p.m.
“They’re short and quirky, and definitely lighter, really fun plays,” said Ms. Slevin.
The festival will also include a jazz brunch with the Sunnyland Jazz Band on July 30 at 11 a.m. at the Dark Horse Restaurant [$45] and Project Poetry at 7 p.m. on Aug.1 [$10], which will include works by both professional and student poets.
Tickets are $25 to see a single show and $45 for a full night of three shows. A full schedule of events is online at www.eastendfringefest.com.